Fees by the numbers

Since the pandemic, more agencies are charging fees. The reasons are varied, but momentum is rising.

Fees by the numbers

Illustration by Abscent Vector/Shutterstock.com

Illustration by Abscent Vector/Shutterstock.com

Since the pandemic, more agencies are charging fees.
The reasons are varied, but momentum is rising.

By Jamie Biesiada
March 13, 2023

How many travel advisors actually charge fees to their clients?

The majority, it turns out.

In response to our survey of more than 500 Travel Weekly readers, conducted online in February, 71% said they charge some type of fee.

Travel agencies that charge fees — whether they’re a one-time consultation fee, a subscription fee, a ticketing fee or something else entirely — are now in the firm majority.

Do you or your agency charge service fees of any type? Yes: 71%. No: 29%.

For many, it represents a change in the way they have traditionally done business. Of those who charge fees, nearly half (45%) said they instituted fees or increased rates as a result of the pandemic, offering further evidence that recent events have spurred agencies to turn to supplemental sources of revenue that are tangential to selling travel. And it appears the trend is likely to grow: Of those who don’t charge fees, 26% are considering doing so.

“I’m surprised it’s taken this long to get this high level of fee adoption in the travel industry,” said consultant and fee evangelist Bob Joselyn, who wrote a book on the subject in 1984. 

If you don't charge a fee, are you considering one? Yes: 26%. No: 40%. Don't know: 34%.


As the publication date of Joselyn’s book indicates, fees have been a hot topic in the agency community for decades. 

The conversation began in earnest in the mid-1990s when base airline commissions, long a major source of revenue for agencies, were capped and, in the early years of the 21st century, eliminated completely. According to Travel Weekly’s survey, 26% of those who charge fees said they had started doing so between 11 and 25 years ago; 8% said they started charging fees more than 25 years ago.

If you or your agency charge a fee, when did you start? Less than one year ago: 11%. 1 to 2 years ago: 20%. 3 to 5 years ago: 20%. 6 to 10 years ago: 16%. 11 to 25 years ago: 26%. More than 25 years ago: 8%.
Has your agency charged a type of fee since it started in business? Yes: 28%. No: 63%. Not sure: 9%.

Whether to charge fees has long been an agency dilemma, and the topic came to the fore again when the pandemic struck and advisors worked without compensation to cancel and rebook clients’ trips, sometimes many times over.

The survey found that 18% of those who charge fees started because of the pandemic.

ASTA last year weighed in as officially pro-fee, including in a credo introduced last summer that “ASTA travel advisors often charge clients professional fees, to reflect the unique services they provide to their clients. We support this as a best practice.”

Historically, Joselyn said, many advisors resisted fees because they lacked the confidence that clients would value their services enough to pay them for the services they provide. Indeed, among survey respondents who don’t charge fees, 44% said they didn’t do so because “I’m afraid my clients won’t pay a fee.”

That was, in fact, the most common response.

If your agency doesn't charge a fee, why not? I'm afraid my clients won't pay a fee: 44%. We need to keep our prices low because of competition: 32%. We make enough money from commissions and don't need to add fees: 23%. We are opposed to fees, since services should be free to the client: 23%. I don't think my tenure in the industry is long enough to demand a fee: 16%. Never thought about it: 9%. Other: 21%.

Joselyn has a theory as to why the pandemic spurred so many who weren’t charging service fees already to look at it seriously.

“I think one of the things that happened during Covid is [advisors] became so valuable to people with all the changes and cancellations and things that happened,” he said. “I think that they began to say, ‘You know what, I really am important. I really am valuable.’”

He said he believes advisors have also been reluctant because they worry that they will lose clients or stop attracting new ones because they charge a fee. That has been changing organically over the years as advisors network and meet agents who successfully charge fees.

The survey indicates fee-charging was already on the upswing before the pandemic. Eighty-one percent of advisors who charge fees said the pandemic did not spur them to start charging fees. And separately, although 26% said their agency didn’t previously charge fees and recently started, another 33% said their agency has added fees over time.

Did you start charging a fee because of the pandemic? Yes: 18%. No: 81%. Don't know: 15%.
Did you add fees or increase your fee rates because of the pandemic? Yes: 45%. No: 55%. Don't know: <1%.


When asked how the pandemic altered their fee structure, a number of survey respondents said that they either increased fees or added services for which they charge fees.

They said the fees help weed out tire-kickers and window-shoppers who use advisors for ideas but then book on their own elsewhere. Additionally, many who said they were somewhat lax about charging fees became more disciplined. 

One respondent only charges when planning detailed itineraries or when they suspect someone is simply a tire-kicker. And in those cases, it’s a “nominal planning fee.”

Charlie Cooper, owner of Red Frog Travel in Louisville, Ky., said his agency began charging fees for two reasons.

“First, we [recently] had an influx of prospects who would contact us and have us do hours of research, send quotes, only to have them book elsewhere or by themselves,” Cooper said. “Second, we saw a trend where cancellations versus new bookings were trending upward.”

Kristi Emo, owner of Your Dream Escapes in Fresno, Calif., uses a variable planning fee. The final amount depends on trip complexity and planning time involved and whether any noncommissionable products were booked.

Many respondents made the argument that, as professionals, advisors should command fees, as do other professionals.

“We are a professional business just like a doctor, lawyer or hairdresser,” one advisor wrote. “We don’t work for free, and we have had no problems with our loyal customers. We explain [fees] to new customers, and if they are uneasy they are free to call around or take care of their own travels.”

Libbi Roed, owner of the Gypsea Traveller in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, has seen business increase since her agency started charging fees.

“In just a year of charging fees I’ve doubled my sales and my income,” Roed said. “While I think it’s a personal choice for agents and their businesses, it’s worked for me.”

Roed advised charging fees especially for those advisors struggling with too many quotes and not enough clients following through with bookings.

Still, other survey respondents said they were opposed to fees. Arguments included that they are already compensated by suppliers or that they were concerned about competition from other advisors or the internet.

“I think agencies that charge fees give the industry a bad reputation,” one advisor wrote. “There seems to be a misunderstanding with many [prospective] clients that all agents charge fees and that it’s always more expensive to use an agent. People are shocked when they find out my agency doesn’t charge a service fee.”

What types of fees does your agency charge? A service fee for airline tickets only: 57%. A one-time consultation fee that is charged on top of a client's total trip cost: 44%. A flate-rate, per-trip service fee: 37%. A one-time consultation fee that is later applied to the client's total trip cost: 14%. A per-trip service fee calculated as a percentage of the total trip cost: 10%. An annual retainer to work with my agency: 3%. Other: 15%.


Survey respondents are charging a variety of fee types. Most popular (57%) was a fee for booking airline tickets, followed by a one-time consultation fee on top of total trip cost (44%) and a flat-rate, per-trip service fee (37%). 

In comments, advisors painted a picture of a travel agency community that charges many and varied fees. 

Some said their fees may vary depending upon commission levels. For instance, if a supplier pays an 8% commission and the agent wants to make 16%, they’ll charge a fee to make up the difference. Others are charging annual retainers.

Joanne Herd, owner of Girasole Travel in Pittsburgh, reported charging a planning fee that starts at $500 and increases based on complexity. Only one client has balked at the fee, Herd said.

Another advisor charges hourly fees, calling them “easy to explain, easy to bill. Time is money, and everyone understands that.”

Some reported charging a smaller, one-time fee just to weed out window-shoppers.

Laura Lampe, manager of Young Travel and Cruises in Greenville, S.C., said her agency charges a $300 planning fee for cruises and group tours. That fee increases to $400 for private tours and hotel packages. The agency also has other fees for standalones, like flights or hotels, and a fee for cancellations or rebooking.

“Charging fees was a difficult transition for us to implement,” Lampe wrote, “but we are confident in our worth.”


How one host agency’s affiliates handle fees

At Travel Experts, the Raleigh, N.C.-based host agency that sits at No. 26 on Travel Weekly’s 2022 Power List, a recent survey of its advisors found that 85% charge fees. 

And while that majority is even greater than the percentage of respondents to the Travel Weekly survey, exactly how they charge those fees varies greatly from advisor to advisor.

Many, Travel Experts said, simply charge ticketing fees. While the amount varies, the average is $35 for domestic air and $50 for international. 

One advisor, Charlotte Jaeger of Cumming, Ga., charges more depending on the type of ticket and length of the flight; Jaeger also charges for special requests ($75 to $150) and after-hours ticketing ($50 on top of other fees).

Other Travel Experts advisors reported a wide range of fee structures, often with flexibility to charge more for longer or more complex trips. Some also reported charging fees specifically for new clients. Others reduce fees for certain groups: Elaine Carey, of Whispering Pines, N.C., offers discounts for military personnel and first responders. And as many advisors reported in Travel Weekly’s survey, some agents charge fees on a client-by-client basis. 

Further, several have created subscription services. 

Margot Kong, founder of Journeys Unparalleled in San Francisco, said her agency’s service is invitation-only and its subscription fee ranges between $1,750 and $3,500 annually, based on a client’s needs and number of trips per year.

Ralph Iantosca, owner of Iantosca Travel in Irving, Texas, offers a $5,000 subscription for 20 hours of work each year; new clients can sign up for a trial of 10 hours of his time for $2,500.

“Custom-tailored itineraries are very special,” Iantosca said. “They can be quite time-consuming, and I want to ensure that my three key ingredients go into each trip: I want each trip to be authentic, creative and, most of all, memorable. Each subscription is customized, setting aside the right amount of time to accomplish our travel goals with my client’s specific travel needs in mind.”